Features » Literature


In the vortex of congealed time

The siege of Leningrad, which began 70 years ago, has found a harrowing witness in literature. By Oleg Yuriev

On 8 September 1941, German and Finnish troops completed the encirclement of Leningrad, the second largest city in the Soviet Union. All supply channels to the city and its 3 million inhabitants were severed. This was the beginning of the 872-day siege, one of the greatest crimes in modern history. People primarily died of hunger, but also of cold and artillery fire, the death count is estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million. The Germans not only reckoned with the disaster; it was intended and planned.

According to Hitler's secret orders No. Ia 1601/41 from 22 September 1941 on "The Future of the city of Petersburg":
1."The Führer has decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth. After victory over the Soviet Union there will not be the least reason for the continued existence of this large city. Finland has also announced that it has no interest in the continued existence of this city, which lies on its new borders. (…)
3. It has been suggested that the city be surrounded securely and levelled with continual air raids and artillery of every calibre. If this results in the city's capitulation, should it be rejected?" On 8 November 1941 Hitler explained in a speech that the enemy would be "starved out" in Leningrad. The report registers "thundering applause".

Outside Russia, and particularly in Germany, the siege of Leningrad has yet to be anchored firmly in people's minds. Not, it should be said, for lack of trying or information. The siege was an issue at the Nuremberg Trials (although the death count was then assumed to be 600,000), and there are more than enough international books on the subject, also from German researchers, with new material constantly being added to the list. And yet it remains an almost "unknown crime". Why? Could it be that compared with the other huge crimes of National Socialism, it has remained the propagandistic "property" of the Soviet leaders, meaning that in the run-up to the Cold War after 1945 it was all but ignored?

I am not going to try now to open the eyes of the world to the of Leningrad Blockade. What I will write about here is less ambitious and somewhat more promising: the literature of the siege. First, though, I should make it clear that my use of the word "hell" in relation to besieged Leningrad, and particularly the first siege in the winter of 1941-1942, is in no way metaphorical. If hell exists anywhere, then it must literally be that: eternal coldness, darkness, unrecognisable scraps of music and news emerging from loudspeakers, marching for hours on foot with the principle means of transport used under the siege, children's ice-skates. Frozen corpses strewn on the roadside. And at home, the corpses of family members which could not be buried for days on end (of course the rest of the family would try to use up their ration cards).

At the time when food supplies were at their most scarce, between 20 November and 25 December 1941, a worker was allotted 250 grams of bread per day; an office employee, child or family member with no income, 125 grams. Soldiers on the front were allotted 500 grams. Half of the ingredients of this bread were inedible (cellulose, grain bran, chaff). But a story famously tells more than numbers: Vassily Betaki, a Leningrad translator and poet who is now 82 and lives in Paris, describes how, as an 11-year old boy during the first winter siege, he chased and roasted rats. He would sit for days on end next to a rat hole in his flat and wait, hammer in hand. Every day he would kill five or six of them. He got the idea from a Jules Verne novel that he had read so enthusiastically before the war. His mother couldn't bring herself to eat the rats and despite having her son's bread rations, she died before spring. This story disproves the popular legend that all the rats ran out of the city on 10 September 1941 after the bombardment of the Badayev storehouses and only returned at the end of the siege on 27 January 1944. But the folklore of the blockade is a subject in and of itself.

Of course lots of literature was produced in hell! The majority of writers who stayed in the city (many of them were evacuated up country) were mobilised and put to work for military newspapers and radio. This was the only relevant medium to ordinary people under the siege. The radio not only broadcast news, music and speeches by Communist Party leaders, but also poems and reportage. A number of poets who read their poems out loud on the Leningrad radio became astonishingly popular. Take Olga Bergholz (1919-1975) who, as a young poet and loyal communist in the thirties, wreaked significant damage, accusing her colleagues in the press, for example, of being "enemies". Naturally this did not prevent her from being imprisoned herself in 1938. Her husband, the poet Boris Kornilov was executed and during interrogation she lost her unborn child. In 1939 Bergholz was freed by the NKVD and rehabilitated, she joined the party and continued her career. During the siege, she was honoured like a saint for the enormous emotional strength of her poetry, which made her untouchable after the war. She was a heavy drinker and was famous throughout the city for her loose talk. Once she was invited as a guest of honour to the KGB headquarters in Liteinyi Prospect to give a poetry recital. She arrived, already drunk, and before she had even taken off her coat asked: "Come on you lot, show me where you're torturing people these days!"

Like many other works that were penned during the blockade, you would hardly describe Bergholz's poems as siege poetry. They are poems (as well as bits of prose) about the siege, texts which attempt to rationalise the incomprehensibility of the world and give people courage or at least deliver some sort of explanation. In this sense they resemble the poems of the radio poets calling on the people to persevere, and the quiet, desperate "private descriptions" of everyday life under the siege. Take, for example, a poem by Natalia Krandievskaya-Tolstaya (1888–1963), a poet and one-time wife of the famous Soviet novelist Alexei Tolstoy. It tells how people collected water in buckets from the rivers and canals: "Let us bind buckets to the children's skates, / and fetch water / - behind the bridge is a steep hill, / be careful climbing it … (…) The snowstorm circles over the Neva, / in white feathers, in silver, / this was how we got our water / 200 years ago, in the days of Tsar Peter..." Here we see an attempt at rationalisation through historical reference. Such poems by Krandievskaya were not published during her lifetime, neither was her siege diary – these were considered too private, too unheroic.

Even more than poems perhaps, people were keeping diaries in the besieged Leningrad. It is as if by regularly writing their diary entries, people were attempting to bring a degree of order into hell, some meaning into time stood still. The siege diaries were cautiously published in the fifties and sixties, and used for "the people's education". One classic example is the diary of the schoolgirl Tanya Savicheva, the "Leningrad Anne Frank", who became a symbol of the siege. Her descriptions indeed make a harrowing document: "Uncle Lyusha died on 10 May at four in the afternoon 1942. Mother died on 13 May at 7.30 in the morning 1942. The Savichevs are dead. They are all dead. Only Tanya is left." She was taken out of Leningrad but died in 1944 from the knock-on effects of the siege.

Daniil Granin and Ales Adamovitch published a comprehensive chronicle of the siege of Leningrad at the end of the seventies/beginning of the eighties which was translated in English as both "A Book of the Blockade" and "Leningrad under Siege". It made extensive use of private diaries and memoirs and, thanks to the prominence of both authors in the Soviet cultural hierarchy, did not adhere slavishly to the taboos of Soviet propaganda, which always tried to present the horrors as somewhat more bearable and the heroic acts as somewhat more heroic. After that it looked as if everything had been said about the siege. But since the end of the eighties, more and more testimonies are being published which have unexpectedly artistic and human qualities, above all the diaries and essays of the great literary critic Lidia Ginzburg (1902-1990).

This river of publications has yet to run dry. By now we know a lot about private life under the siege, which allows major breakthroughs in research. Of particular import is the perception of time under the siege (the subject of Russian-American Polina Barskova's research) – time repeats itself over and over in routine activities and yet it comes to an end every second. It is infinite and finite at once, it continues but does not progress. This is the time of repetitive singularity. All attempts to reproduce the reality of the siege in ordinary literary or lyrical narrative time failed precisely at this paradoxical quality of blockade time.

Sad to say, but in the last ten years the Leningrad siege has become intellectually fashionable in Russia (and elsewhere, with the exception of German countries). Russian publications on the subject are everywhere you look. Among them, though, are two sensational discoveries: two poetic works which were written in hell and which are able to do it justice poetically. These had less of a therapeutic (not to mention propagandist) function, but really captured the nature of the siege. Through them the siege found a voice.

Paradoxically it was a Viennese publisher Edition Korrespondenzen that in 2007 published a book of poems which have revolutionised our idea of the poetry of the Leningrad catastrophe. "Blockade" came from the pen of Gennady Gor and was discovered by the indefatigable translator of Russian literature Peter Urban who, during his work on Gor's short prose, stumbled across his poems. The dual-language volume that Urban edited was a first publication in both German and Russian. Gor (1907-1981) was a famous Science Fiction author in the sixties and seventies. Only a few people knew about his early experimental prose and no one knew that he had also written poetry.

"Edgar Poe's preposterous smile / Cervantes with unsteady gait, / useless, but golden a little fish / a highly hazardous catch. / Someone will kill me, I know, on a Monday / and leave me lying by the wash table. / And my henchman will wash himself there / wondering, there where people kiss / smiling while he washes." Lines like this give voice to the absolute horror – of freezing, of starving, of being eaten, quite literally, by someone who has turned to cannibalism. In Gor's poems cannibalism becomes a gruesome metaphor, the leitmotiv of siege existence. More importantly, though, these poems convey the movement and stasis of time in the hell of the siege, and the constant dialogue with one's own death. And what makes Gor's poems a sensation in the Russian literary world is that they show that the language of the Leningrad avant-garde, which was held in contempt by the doctrine of Socialist Realism, was the only poetic language capable of taking on the absolute existential emergency situation.

It almost seems as if the "strange poets" of the thirties, Daniil Charms or Kharms (who died of starvation in prison hospital during the siege), Alexander Vvedensky (shot in a convoy of prisoners) and Nikolai Zabolotzky (imprisoned in a labour camp at the time) were able to develop their poetic imagination and complex understanding of time in prescience of the siege. Consciously or unconsciously, Gennady Gor used their language to create a poetic universe that transports the reader straight to hell.

Another discovery are the collected poems, published 2011 in Moscow by Pavel Salzmann (1912-1985), a painter, graphic designer and student of Pavel Filonov (1883-1841), a classic Russian avant-garde artist who died in the winter of the siege. Salzmann painted and made films, and on the side throughout his life he wrote poetry and prose. He spent the first winter of the siege in Leningrad. The poetics of his writing of the time belongs unmistakeably to the culture of the Leningrad avant-garde: "I am a fool, I am an arsehole, I am a cripple, / I would kill a man for a sausage, / but let us in, please, / we've been scratching too long like dogs at the door, / I'm desperate, you executioners, / for a pee!" In their desperate directness these pseudo-primitive poems are a long cry from any attempt to rationalise events by containing them in human logic. In their structure they reproduce the horrors in ways both fearful and magnetic.

The spectrum of the recently discovered testimonies, both documentary and poetic, show that siege of Leningrad is not only one of those events that remind us of what "civilised people" are capable. They do not simply admonish us, they show us that these 872 days are part of the existential experience of every person on this planet. Without poetry, such things would be impossible to grasp and now, seventy years after the start of the siege of Leningrad, this poetry is gradually making its way towards us.

Oleg Yuriev, was born 1959 in Leningrad. He lives as a novelist, poet, playwright and essayist in Frankfurt am Main. Read more of his articles in English here and here
Translation from the German: lp

Image courtesy Sergey Nemanov - let's talk european